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Changing what we can change

By Margaret Beavis - posted Monday, 23 November 2015

What can we actually do to improve outcomes, when there is an increasing sense of chaos? Working to prevent conflict is hard to sell. Yet there are many positive and effective things we can do here in Australia in response to the horrific events overseas.

We need to play a long game, and embrace and revitalise our strengths.

Australia has a proud history of multiculturalism, and bringing together leaders and communities from differing ethnic and religious groups has worked in the past. Whether it is a Vietnamese Lord Mayor, an Aboriginal football player or an articulate Muslim media commentator we have much to be thankful for. We need to send clear messages that trolls, hateful ex politicians and abusive shock jocks do not represent the majority of Australians. Festivals, shared events and celebrations bring our communities together.


We also need to analyse and learn from the past. The US "War on Terror" and the subsequent invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq have resulted in the deaths of an estimated one million Iraqis, the destabilisation of an already challenged region and are likely to have been a factor in the "radicalisation" of many. The French "War on Terror", with its reflex bombing of IS positions in Syria is politically and emotionally understandable. But until the civil war in Syria is diplomatically resolved, the availability of a cohesive long term force to take on and replace IS is very limited and the outlook grim. Right now diplomacy is the key to a lasting outcome.

Apart from bombing and invasion, what are our options? To quote Mary Robinson, the former UN Commissioner for Human Rights: "you cannot fight a war on terror without also fighting a war on disadvantage, discrimination and despair. Security, development and human rights are inextricably linked." We need to build on the edges of Iraqi society that are functional. In August the WHO closed health centres in 10 of 18 regions in Iraq due to both lack of funds and security concerns. This means 3 million Iraqis now have no access to healthcare, and will create a generation of unvaccinated children.

Providing adequate funds for reputable aid organisations to work in regions where it is safe to do so will help stabilise those societies, reducing both political instability and the need for people to leave their homes. Australia had been slowly building its foreign aid towards a promised 0.75% of GNI. But savage cuts in 2014 mean instead we are heading for 0.21% of GNI- the lowest since foreign aid budgets began. This will contribute to instability in many other regions. As one of the world's wealthiest countries, we can use our foreign aid to build stability.

We need to strengthen our gun laws, which have saved so many lives. Our gun deaths are a twentieth of those in the US, yet far right politicians perpetually call for greater availability. Earlier this year concessions in legislation regarding lever action shotgun imports were traded off to gain David Leyonhjelm's critical vote in the Senate. Gun violence is increasing in our community. Gun numbers are back to what they were before Port Arthur. We need to look again at strategies to stop imports and get guns out of our community.

Great steps have been taken this year towards finally getting rid of nuclear weapons. Since January 121 nations have signed up to the Humanitarian Pledge, committing to banning and eliminating nuclear weapons.Last week, the UN General Assembly's First Committee adopted four ground-breaking resolutions on the humanitarian consequences, the ethical aspects of nuclear disarmament, and for commencing discussions of new legal instruments and legal norms that can lead to the prohibition and elimination of nuclear weapons. The Australian government is playing a spoiler role in these negotiations, despite 84% of the population supporting a ban in a 2014 Nielsen survey.We need to lobby our Liberal/National party MPs to follow up on their commitments to disarmament, rather than continuing to act as a proxy for United States interests.The ALP now has effective policies firmly supporting thedevelopment of a nuclear weapons ban.

We need to look again at our criminal justice system. Locking people up for minor crimes has a radicalised many. We do not need to encourage home grown terrorists. A few years ago Victoria, using diversion programs and other innovative solutions, had been a leader in reducing rates of recidivism. This has been lost in the populist "tough on crime" agenda of the last few years. We are locking people up more than ever, and our rates of reoffending are rising fast. Jailing so many is very expensive, and the cost in ruined lives is incalculable.


Finally we need to go back to treating asylum seekers in accordance with our obligations under the 1951 UN Refugee Convention. The current camps imprison people who have committed no crime. For many years we processed asylum seekers in the community after an initial set of checks. And the regional processing used for the Vietnamese "Boat people" has resulted in a strong well integrated Vietnamese community contributing much to our society. Investing in a serious regional protective framework would make getting on boats a much less attractive option. And the people who came would not be scarred for life by the appalling treatment we currently hide on Nauru, Manus and Christmas Island.

Preventing conflict is very cost effective and saves many lives. It takes a long time, and is difficult to measure. With greater division the terrorists win. We can wage peace - it is just so much harder to sell.

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About the Author

Margaret Beavis is a Melbourne GP and Vice President of the Medical Association for Prevention of War.

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